State finals--Peoria or Champaign?

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State finals--Peoria or Champaign?

The finals of the boys state basketball tournament should be played at Assembly Hall in Champaign.

The Illinois High School Association's signature event belongs in the state's most celebrated venue this side of United Center.

That said, it won't happen until the folks in Champaign-Urbana get their act together and decide that they really want to host the tournament, as they did from 1919 to 1995.

The University of Illinois' new athletic director, Mike Thomas, said he wants to host the tournament once again, and new men's basketball coach, John Groce, said he wants to see the tournament in Assembly Hall.

"The first question that coach John Groce asked me (after he was hired) was about having the state tournament back in Champaign. I think that's critical," said Thomas, who hopes to tie the completion of the Assembly Hall's renovation to a bid for the tournament.

But Thomas already is aware of the issues involved. Former coach Bruce Weber also wanted to return the tournament to Champaign. But neither Weber nor former athletic director Ron Guenther had enough clout with local businessmen to make it happen.

"We also have to remember, to do that, it's not just a University of Illinois event--we can certainly do our part--but it's also a community event," Thomas said. "So everybody in the Champaign-Urbana area has to be on board as it relates to hosting those events and putting in attractive bids that would make folks want to come here."

We've heard that song before. Until Thomas, Groce and university officials persuade the businessmen in the Champaign-Urbana...the hotel and motel owners, the gas station owners, the restaurant and bar owners...to stop gouging the people who attend the event, it will never happen.

For years, I beat a drum for Champaign. Assembly Hall, I wrote repeatedly, is an architectural masterpiece. Carver Arena in Peoria is just another gym. Even 50 years after it was built, Assembly Hall is a one-of-a-kind facility that still awes visitors.

If you can't hold the state finals in Chicago's United Center, then the best place in the state is Assembly Hall. You don't display the Mona Lisa in a convenience store. The state's showcase event belongs in a 16,000-seat arena that is unlike any other in the country.

Sure, Assembly Hall needs to be renovated, and it will be. As a Illinois student, I remember when architect Max Abramovitz' version of the Taj Mahal was a big hole in the ground in 1959. I was awed to walk in for the first time to attend the first game played there, then the first state tournament in 1963. It was build for 8.35 million or 63.4 million in today's dollars.

Last November, a 2.2 million proposal to renovate Assembly Hall was approved by the University's Board of Trustees, calling for the installation of air conditioning, expanded restrooms and corporate luxury boxes.

Trivia note: There are only two sports facilities in Illinois that are on the list of endangered historic places--Assembly Hall and Wrigley Field.

The state tournament was a big-time event when the dome-shaped Assembly Hall was originally opened. Scalpers abounded outside old Huff Gym, which sat only 6,000. But they still found takers outside Assembly Hall in the early years. In those days, the high schools supported the tournament. You saw dozens and dozens of basketball players wearing their varsity letter jackets. And radio stations from Carbondale to the Quad Cities covered the event live.

Not anymore. The last time the IHSA put up the site of state tournament finals for bid, Champaign-Urbana proposed 200,000. Peoria proposed 450,000 and a pact with local hotels not to gouge visitors or force a three-night minimum stay. Guess who won the bid?

Give Peoria credit, they have done a marvelous job of hosting the state finals. The city has financial support from Caterpillar and its riverboat casino. Without the University of Illinois, it has been argued, Champaign-Urbana would be another Tuscola or Paxton.

Another plus for the tournament in Peoria is the March Madness Experience, a collection of fun and games that draws hundreds of basketball fans and just plain folks and their kids to the large exposition hall adjacent to Carver Arena. Some visitors spend all their time at the Experience and never see a game.

The last time we checked Champaign-Urbana or any other community in the state, even Chicago, doesn't have a comparable facility to hold such an event, a fact I'm sure the IHSA takes into serious consideration whenever the tournament comes up for bid. The IHSA's current contract with Peoria runs through 2014-15.

Originally, the IHSA never dreamed the tournament would leave Champaign-Urbana. After 77 years in Champaign, even Steve Kouri, the Peoria lawyer who conceived of the plot to steal the prize, had doubts that the heist could be pulled off. But constant complaints from schools and fans opened the door and Peoria charged in with a well-organized and well-funded game plan that blew away the committee chosen to evaluate the proposals.

Kouri met with Jim Flynn, an assistant executive director of the IHSA, and was stunningly surprised when Flynn informed him that the IHSA didn't think it was appreciated in Champaign, that if Peoria could offer a financial incentive, it might be accepted. Yes, Kouri said to himself as he left the meeting with Flynn, "we can get this thing if we do it right."

"They (Champaign) never believed the tournament would leave the town," Flynn said. So nobody blinked when the Assembly Hall raised its rental fee, demanded a higher percentage of merchandise sales and gross receipts and began charging for parking. For years, tournament visitors had been complaining about rising prices for lodging. Tournament attendance had declined dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s.

"We had to find a way to get people back and generate more interest in the tournament," Flynn said. "It got to the point where Champaign-Urbana didn't budge and the other communities said: 'Give us a chance to show you what we can do.' I knew Peoria's bid would be a good one."

The Peoria package was too good to pass up. Civic leaders and businessmen pledged support. Caterpillar, the city's biggest industry, made a financial commitment. The hotels, always the biggest hangup in Champaign-Urbana, jumped on board.

It got even better when they organized a Fan Jam or March Madness Experience in the 66,000-square-foot exhibition hall adjacent to Carver Arena. "A light bulb when on. We could do it. We could enhance the tournament and give the IHSA something that Champaign-Urbana couldn't," Kouri said.

The final decision was a no-brainer. After examining bids from Peoria, Champaign-Urbana and Illinois State University in Normal, the IHSA unanimously awarded the tournament to Peoria.

The IHSA surveyed its membership and concluded that the overwhelming majority favored the move. "The only minus was Carver Arena (compared to Assembly Hall). But there were so many pluses," said then IHSA executive director David Fry.

"People said the tournament isn't about the arena, it's about players, games and fun. Peoria had everything except the Assembly Hall. But not too many people seemed to mind. When I went into the March Madness Experience for the first time, it blew my mind."

It is hard to imagine that the IHSA will opt to return to Champaign-Urbana. But, remember, nobody thought the state tournament would leave Champaign-Urbana in the first place.

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Stars: Another slow start but better finish

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Stars: Another slow start but better finish

It wasn't pretty, but the Blackhawks found a way to pick up another two points and improved to 6-0-1 over their last seven games, and 18-3-1 over their last 22.

With Minnesota's loss to Philadelphia, the Blackhawks have taken an eight-point lead for first in the Central Division and are only two points away from the Washington Capitals for home-ice advantage throughout the entire Stanley Cup playoffs.

Let's take a look at Quick Hits from the 3-2 shootout victory over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night:

What Worked: The finish and shootout. While the Blackhawks scored the game's first goal, it was another slow start by a team that has had a few of those over the last several outings and has preached working on turning in more of a complete effort. They recorded only 14 shots on goal in the first two periods, and it took more than six minutes after Patrick Kane's goal to record their next one.

But they finished on a positive note yet again, and went 2-for-3 in the shootout thanks to Kane and Artemi Panarin, who potted the game winner. Kane said after the game that he tried his move on Scott Darling during morning skate and it worked. So he went with it tonight in an effort to snap a mini shootout drought and he did.

What Didn't Work: Controlling the puck. The Blackhawks seemingly have the puck more than their opponent does almost every game, but it doesn't reflect in the shot department because they often look for the perfect pass or shot and fail to record one at all. They had 50 shot attempts with 26 of them on goal compared to the Stars' 64 attempts with 44 on goal. They know they must get better at that.

Star of the game: Corey Crawford. After allowing four goals on only 10 shots in Tuesday's overtime loss to Vancouver, the Blackhawks netminder bounced back in a huge way. He matched a season-high with 42 saves, and recorded his 30th win of the season.

He Said It: "He played amazing tonight. Reason we won the game. Hats off to him, he's done that a lot this year. For a goalie it's probably tough to show up every night, even the goals he let in last game you can't put all the blame on him, but he was outstanding tonight." — Kane on Crawford's performance

By the Numbers:

167 — Niklas Hjalmarsson blocked one shot in the win, and it was enough to set a new career high in that department, previously established during the 2010-11 campaign (166).

15 — Trevor van Riemsyk assisted on Marian Hossa's goal in the third period, giving him a career-high 15 points on the season in 50 games. He had 14 points in 82 games last year. He also extended his point streak to three games.

6 — With the victory, Crawford has earned at least 30 wins in six of his seven NHL seasons as a full-time starter. The only time he didn't reach that mark was during the lockout-shortened year in 2012-13 when he went 19-5-5.

Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to have the best rotation in baseball

Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to have the best rotation in baseball

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Jake Arrieta is a Cy Young Award winner who won't get the Opening Night assignment. John Lackey is a No. 3 starter already fitted for his third World Series ring. Kyle Hendricks led the majors with a 2.13 ERA last year and won't start until the fifth game of this season.  

Do you feel like this is the best rotation in baseball?

"We're up there, yeah," Arrieta said after homering off Zack Greinke during Thursday afternoon's 5-5 tie with the Arizona Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. "I think on paper – and with what we've actually done on the field – it's tough to not say that.

"We like the guys we have. People can rank them, but time will tell. Once we get out there the first four or five times through the rotation, I think you can probably put a stamp on it then, more so than now. 

"But, yeah, we stack up just as well as anybody out there, for sure."  

Arrieta made it through five innings against the Diamondbacks, giving up three runs and eight hits in what figures to be his second-to-last Cactus League tune-up before facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on April 4. 

The New York Mets blew away Cubs hitters with their power pitching and game-planning during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep. The Washington Nationals are trying to keep Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg healthy and already watched Tanner Roark deliver for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. 

The Cubs dreaded the idea of facing Johnny Cueto in a possible elimination game at Wrigley Field last October. The Los Angeles Dodgers almost became a matchup nightmare for the Cubs with lefties Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill during the 2016 NLCS.

But slotting Hendricks at No. 5 – five months after he started a World Series Game 7 – is a luxury few contenders can afford. 

"That just speaks to our length in the rotation," Arrieta said, "and being able to keep relievers out of the game, longer than most teams. That's a big deal, especially when you get into July and August. 

"Obviously, Kyle could be a 1 or 2 just about anywhere. Not that he's not here. We've got several of those, which is a good problem to have. It's going to be favorable for us when there's a No. 4 or No. 5 guy in our rotation going up against somebody else's. Our chances are really good, especially with our lineup." 

Arrieta talked up No. 4 starter Brett Anderson as "a little bit like Hendricks from the left side" in terms of his preparation, cerebral nature and spin rate, a combination that makes him an X-factor for this rotation and an organization starved for pitching beyond 2017. 

The if-healthy disclaimer always comes with Anderson, who played with Arrieta on the 2008 Olympic team and has been on the disabled list nine times since then. Coming out of high school, Arrieta initially signed to play for Anderson's father, Frank, the Oklahoma State University coach at the time, before going in a different direction in a career that wouldn't truly take off until he got to Chicago. 

"We're all looking forward to seeing how we pick up where we left off," Arrieta said. "Judging by what we've done this spring and the shape guys are in and the health – I don't see any reason we can't jump out to an early lead like we did last year and sustain it throughout the entire season."